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Love, loss and open road: Wisconsin man drives 11,000 miles following late wife's wishes

Love, loss and open road: Wisconsin man drives 11,000 miles following late wife's wishes

FOND DU LAC, Wis. - Charles “Chuck” Wagner can’t tell the story enough. 

He was serving in Hawaii with the Air Force in the late 1960s. He walked into the Hilton Hotel bar he and his buddies would frequent. He caught a glimpse of his friend, Michael, talking to a young woman and proceeded to do something out of the ordinary. Wagner walked right up to them and asked why Michael wasn't dancing with the beautiful girl to whom he was talking to. Michael answered that she didn't like to dance. Lorraine Hurteau said she'd be happy to join Wagner on the dance floor.

Six months later, Wagner and Hurteau got married at the church just down the street from where he grew up outside Fond du Lac. 

 

"We were never apart for the next 48 years, 11 months," Wagner said.

They moved to Arizona and raised two kids. They had a number of unexpected adventures (that Wagner can recall in great detail). They hugged and kissed every night. They watched sunsets and went on walks. Their friends would call them the golden couple, and for good reason.  

"I knew I had somebody who would be with me through thick and thin," Wagner said.

Wagner knows what they had was special. In his kids' words, he’s had a pretty great life for a farmboy from Wisconsin.

"I've got those memories," Wagner said. "Nobody's going to take that from me."

A few years ago, Lorraine started getting sick. She had inherited a disease that affected her ability to eat. One night, she asked Chuck to take her to the hospital. Within 72 hours, she died.

"It's just been a great life, and I just wish she was still with me to share it," Wagner said.

Wagner says his wife was always a planner and her funeral was nothing different.  Along with what readings and songs she wanted included in the ceremony, she planned out a multileg trip for her family.

"I firmly believe that when we went through some of these things we've gone through on these journeys, she's guided us in a way," Wagner said.

That journey started with going back to Hawaii, where Wagner stopped at the bar where they met, before taking some of her ashes out on a boat and letting them float away on the Pacific. His kids have the precise GPS points where they did that so he can have the same thing done with his remains.

 

Then, Lorraine laid out plans to explore the southern part of the country with stops where she had childhood memories and teaching jobs over the years. Chuck met up with old friends, learned about Lorraine’s relatives, and made too many new memories to count.

He guesses he's driven about 11,000 miles around the continental U.S.

Now, on the third and final part of Lorraine’s plan, Chuck made time to pass through Wisconsin and see relatives in his hometown.

"I love what I'm doing right now," Wagner said.

Wagner says it's been cathartic for him, his son and his daughter to go on this journey.

"I think both Lorraine and I had a love of life. I think that was key, too," Wagner said.

While he misses his wife every day, he is grateful for the new connections and new experiences she has given him since she died.

"Lorraine's love lives forever, and I think that's the way it is," Wagner said. "And I was blessed to find her."

 

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